The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls Of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk is the classic work by one of the “big names” of the struggle for civil rights, written around the turn of the (20th) century, at a time when there were still many people around who had lived in the antebellum era, and thus a time when slavery was still a fresh memory.

One of the main things I was struck by in reading this book is how well it would stand up in a contemporary discussion of race. It’s all quite reasonable, intelligent, and insightful, and it says things that are still worth thinking about today.

Is that a big deal? Well, maybe, when you think about how routine it is to read ghastly quotes from otherwise highly-regarded figures from the past on controversial matters like race. So often famous statesmen, writers, etc. made remarks that today would be regarded as blatantly, ignorantly racist, sexist, etc., and we try to temper our condemnation of their attitudes by citing the times of which they were a product—“Well, you have to remember, back then everyone talked that way,” “It’s not fair to judge him by today’s standards,” etc., etc.

But Du Bois needs few such excuses. He isn’t bogged down in whatever happened to be the fallacious assumptions of the “common wisdom” of his day, and—even though he is at times explicitly responding to Booker T. Washington or other contemporaneous figures—he doesn’t write so as to score debating points or push the desired emotional buttons of his immediate audience. This gives his work a more timeless quality, an ability to speak across the generations to people quite differently situated.

It also reminded me that even today, an educated, intelligent, articulate black person can strike some people as a welcome surprise (see Joe Biden’s comment a couple years ago about Barack Obama). A hundred years ago, it was a lot more of a novelty. Du Bois, for instance, was the first black person ever to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard. So maybe today a remark like Biden’s can be criticized as insensitive and unintentionally racist, but back then it wasn’t ugly stereotyping to regard it as unusual for a black person to reach the highest levels of education and writing ability. It was reality.

Perhaps part of the reason Du Bois comes across the way he does is his background as a (social) scientist. His writing reflects the values of someone who believes in objectivity, in reasoned discourse, in logical argumentation, not a politician or lawyer or marketing type who believes in “whatever works” in bringing people around to your point of view.

On the other hand, that’s not to say his writing style is dull and dry, or that the substance itself lacks emotional impact. If anything the style is more “literary” than fits my tastes or than I can fully appreciate.

I don’t mean all of that kind of thing is lost on me. There are multiple instances in this book where his accounts—some nonfiction and some fiction—of wasted lives, indefensible cruelty, etc. were quite effective for me. It’s just that I suspect for a lot of readers the high falutin’ writing style will be an unmixed positive, whereas for me it was mixed—liked it at times, made things a little more dense than they needed to be at other times.

One of the concepts Du Bose is most known for is that of “double consciousness.” He describes how black people must act and speak and think a certain way when white people are present, and then can relax and be a different kind of person when with only each other. Kind of like with most jobs, where you have to adopt a certain façade when you’re “on duty,” which may be very different from the type of person you are when not in that role. So being around white people is like having a job that requires an especially high degree of play acting and malleability.

Among the thoughts that brought to mind are two I’ll mention here. One is it reminded me of the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. That’s the account of a white journalist in the early 1960s, who darkened his skin to be able to pass as a black person in the South, and recorded the differences in how people reacted to him as white and then as black. He noted that black people were, not surprisingly, vastly more open, honest, and relaxed when they thought he was black. They sort of welcomed him into the conspiracy. Whereas when they thought he was white, they were careful and controlled in their behavior, keeping as much of their true selves as possible behind a veil.

The other is it caused me to speculate to what extent such a “double consciousness” can be intentional and controlled, and to what extent the persona you adopt in having to regularly put on an act can seep into your true self so that the borderline gets blurred and you are what you pretend to be. Can you really keep your two selves fully compartmentalized, and switch back and forth at will when you are around different people? Or is it like the salesman who maybe starts by consciously adopting a slick and manipulative style, but ends up believing a lot of his own bullshit?

Which would likely make him a better salesman, by the way, since being sincere is typically even more effective than being good at pretending to be sincere. Of course it rots your soul at the same time, but most people treat that as a small price to pay…

It’s hard to believe that this kind of racial two-step is anything other than psychologically damaging at a deep level (while at the same time being effective in achieving one’s ends in the world, and indeed in some circumstances even necessary for survival).

But like I say, this is one of the many topics in this book that are as relevant to the sociology and psychology and politics of race today as a century ago.

As I noted, some of the book consists of Du Bois’s critique of the ideas of Booker T. Washington. He makes sure to keep his criticisms as civil and respectful as possible, in keeping with the tone of the book as a whole.

Washington (at least as Du Bois presents him—I haven’t done any independent study of this) advocated pushing for very limited improvements in very limited areas in the lives and opportunities of black people, so as not to move so fast as to shock white people and set off a backlash. However much sense that may have made tactically, it’s hard not to cringe reading that now, and to side with Du Bois’s impatience to simply speak the truth and stand up for yourself and what’s right with dignity, instead of playing these little games to stay on the good side of whites.

But probably what I’m struck by most when I read a book like this is how there are some issues that aren’t even remotely close calls, where you really have to be exceedingly stupid or evil or both to be on a certain side, and yet that side somehow gets treated as worthy of serious consideration, or worse yet as self-evidently right rather than self-evidently wrong.

Race is one of those issues. Yes, there are issues on the periphery that reasonable people can disagree about—certain forms of affirmative action, reparations, etc. But in broad terms, Du Bois isn’t just right, he’s obviously right, and so obviously right that it’s depressing that very large numbers of people up to today vehemently insist otherwise.

To state that it’s wrong to oppress people and deprive them of the most basic rights and opportunities on the basis of something as irrelevant as race or gender, is akin to stating that the moon is not made of green cheese. That’s all Dubose is doing here with his social science studies, his calm, reasoned tone, his eloquent storytelling, and all the rest—stating the obvious truth that the moon is not made of green cheese (while Washington is just off-camera urging him, “No, no, just tell them it’s made out of cheese of indeterminate color. Hold off on pushing for more until the time is ripe. No need to piss them off.”).

So in that sense I suppose I didn’t get all that much out of this book. I mean, there are interesting points of social psychology and such that are worth thinking about, but mostly it’s a guy saying the moon is not made of green cheese, and I already knew that. Just as I already knew that this is a world that then and now has enough idiot conservatives to render that a controversial claim.

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